After a paralyzing ranching accident when I was 16, I spent several months in rehabilitation learning how to live my life in a wheelchair. Nurses and therapists trained me on how to get myself ready in the morning and at night, how to maneuver my wheelchair, how to transfer into a vehicle and, eventually, how to drive on my own. We discussed my education and future college plans, possible job opportunities and even different ways to get back into recreational activities. With everything we covered, one topic was never broached — how to defend myself.

The statistics measuring violence against people with disabilities are staggering. According to the World Health Organization, “The systematic review on violence against adults with disabilities, published in February 2012, found that overall they are 1.5 times more likely to be a victim of violence than those without a disability, while those with mental health conditions are at nearly four times the risk of experiencing violence.”1 The nature of disabilities, whether physical, mental or sensory, leads many who are afflicted to seek out assistance from others to lead healthy lives. Unfortunately, this opens the door to opportunities for predators looking for a person who is vulnerable to physical, emotional or sexual abuse within his or her own home or a care-giving setting.

As our world continues to become more violent, these attacks can also occur in public. Personally, I do not employ a caregiver. I am often alone when I travel or wheel throughout my daily life. While I have never considered myself a victim, I am not naïve to the fact that I could be viewed as a wheeling target. So the question is asked, how can someone with a disability expect to defend herself against someone who is able-bodied?

The Answer

The first important task is to understand your own personal abilities. Obviously, each person living with a disability is different. You know better than anyone else what you are capable of. With that in mind, be realistic about what you can and cannot do. This will mean that one form of self-protection will work well for some and be impossible for others. There is no right or wrong way.

Next, you need to understand your personal comfort level. Some people, regardless of their abilities, will never feel at ease carrying a weapon. Again, there is no one right solution for everyone, but it behooves you to at least learn what your options are before forming an opinion of what will work best for you. With these ground rules established, let’s look at specific options, including weaponless, less-lethal weapons and lethal weapons.

Personal Defense With a Disability

If you are not able to use a weapon for self-defense or you are not comfortable carrying and utilizing a weapon for self-defense, you can still be vigilant about your own safety. Consider an alarm system for your home. Many companies can make adjustments, allowing extra time to arm/disarm the system, as well as various options for keypads and height-adjusted or magnified peepholes to assist you in knowing when it is safe to open your door.

Other companies offer a personal security button that is worn on your person, whether by a lanyard around your neck or a strap on your wrist. Many of these are connected to some type of phone application to alert not only a response company but also the police and your selected list of friends and family.

Always make sure you feel safe around the people you allow to access your life, whether a caregiver, friend, family member or someone you are in a personal relationship with, know that you have the right to feel secure and protected. Surround yourself with people you trust who will never use your physical disability as a way to control, manipulate or harm you.

Common Sense … and Self-Defense Classes

When in public settings, always be aware of your surroundings. Know where your accessible exits are and what obstacles could prevent you from reaching those exits. I like to position my wheelchair where I can see all of the exits and no one can get behind me.

Avoid parking far from a building’s entrance if possible. Although most accessible parking spots should be close, sometimes they are full (or non-existent). Take up two spots if needed, but don’t leave yourself vulnerable by parking in a distant location, especially at night. It takes me some time to load into my SUV. If I were alone and in an area that wasn’t well-lit, I would be very susceptible to an attack.

Besides basic awareness and prevention, consider taking a self-defense class. Believe it or not, there is a form of self-defense specifically created for people living with a disability. In 1996, after being attacked three times himself, Master Instructor Jurgen Schmidt created a non-profit organization, the International Disabled Self-Defense Association (IDSA). He also developed the “Defense-Ability” system of self-defense, which is based on the martial arts style of Combat Hapkido. With the knowledge that all people have different abilities, the IDSA trains instructors to work with the public to teach self-defense in a suitable manner for people living with a disability.

Do some research on self-defense classes in your area and ask the instructors about your specific needs. If you live somewhere that does not offer these options, look for videos online demonstrating basic instructions for your ability level. Think of your wheelchair or adaptive device as a barrier between yourself and someone invading your personal space and learn to use it accordingly. Consider hiring caregivers that either have self-defense training or would be willing to take a class in order to assist you in remaining safe at all times.

Less-Lethal Force

If you are able and comfortable carrying a less-lethal weapon, there are multiple options. Key fobs are a great start. If you are alone and heading to your vehicle, keep your keys in a ready position. If you feel threatened, just the noise of your car horn or alarm blasting loudly could be enough to deter someone from bothering you. At the least, it will draw attention to your situation, which could also be a deterrent.

The keys themselves can also be used to discourage someone from bothering you, using either a jabbing motion with a single key or as added weight and hardness to a swinging motion, like a punch. Other less-lethal forms of protection include a metal pen, a bright light, a TASER or pepper spray. Just make sure that you know the individual state laws about what you can and can’t possess in order to protect yourself.

You could also consider carrying an air horn. These small canisters of compressed air are easy to conceal and use, and the noise is truly deafening. Not only are they great deterrents to anyone or anything bothering you, they definitely alert others around you that you are in need of assistance. Just don’t forget to remove them from your carry-on before boarding a plane.

Lethal Force

Finally, depending on your state regulations and your own personal comfort level, you might have the option of carrying some form of lethal weapon, such as a knife or a gun. Obviously, this is a choice that requires a higher degree of commitment and training in order to be effective and safe.

When it comes to choosing a knife or gun, there is no universal answer. With each person’s needs and abilities being unique, the best answer is to try as many options as you can until you find the best fit for your situation. This is not a purchase that you want to hurry through or take flippantly. And remember, the proper weapon does you no good without the proper training.

Concealed Carry Options for Those With Disabilities

After you have procured your weapon, lethal or not, you need to carry it effectively. You have two options: off your body or on your body. Most people who use a wheelchair for mobility, like myself, have some type of a bag attached to the chair. Whether it is underneath your chair, on the back of your chair or somewhere on the front of your chair, if it is not easily accessible, it might not be the best place for a self-defense weapon.

Attacks can happen quickly and unexpectedly, so you need fast, sure access to your weapon. Wherever you choose to wear your bag or other means of carrying, practice getting to it until you can access it without fail. The options for concealed carry are not limited to holsters or purses.

The major downside of a weapon carried off of your body is you will not have access to it if you are no longer in your wheelchair. If someone sneaks up and knocks you over, suddenly you are not only without your mobility but also without easy access to your bag on the back of your chair. You are doubly vulnerable. This is why many prefer carrying on their person if possible.

If you are able, there are also many other options for carrying on your body. A pocket in your clothing might work, depending on the manner of weapon you are carrying. You could also look at the many types of holsters and slings that fit onto your body. For someone like me who lives with paralysis, I have to be careful that straps and closures are not shifting or rubbing an area that I cannot feel. Any type of shoulder sling or holster can also affect my ability to maneuver my wheelchair. Again, find the option that is best for you and your situation.

If you do choose to carry a firearm, you also need to decide if you will open carry or concealed carry the handgun. Either way, you need to not only know the law for the state in which you live but also for any other state in which you wish to carry; reciprocity cannot be assumed. Most states require a permit for concealed carry, and many require a certified class, which might require range time.

My Concealed Carry Journey

My journey toward self-protection began almost 17 years ago, and I continue to learn something new every day. I recently began the process of earning my Wyoming concealed carry permit.

Personally, I will choose to carry concealed on my body in a messenger-style bag with a reinforced strap. As mentioned earlier, holsters are not the best option for me, but I still want quick and easy access to my firearm (while being as connected to it as possible). The reinforced strap means it can’t be cut from behind, and it won’t break or tear if I am knocked out of my wheelchair. The bag will also stay attached to me as I transfer into my vehicle.

As far as self-defense choices, I currently implement multiple options. I am always aware of my surroundings, and I do everything I can to not put myself into compromising situations. I know my physical abilities and how to use my wheelchair as a defensive tool. I carry a bright light, multiple metal pens with sharp tips, an air horn and a knife. My keys are attached to a strap that I carry around my wrist on my way to my vehicle. These are all options that I am comfortable using.

After I receive my permit and am legal to carry a concealed handgun, I will feel as adequately protected as I can be based on my personal abilities and comfort level. I am still shopping for handguns, but I think I will end up with multiple options. I will definitely be wheeling safely as an educated and more aware person living with a disability.


(1) Hughes, K.; Bellis, MA.; Jones, L.; Wood, S.; Bates, G.; Eckley, L.; McCoy, E.; Mikton, C.; Shakespeare, T.; and Officer, A. “Prevalence and risk of violence against adults with disabilities: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies.” The Lancet, 2012.